Don’t Mention Enoch: Can The Tories Win Black And Asian Votes?

Readers of the black newspaper the Voice were surprised last year to find a guest column from the chancellor George Osborne. He bore good news: his budgetary tinkering with the little-understood air passenger duty meant that readers’ flights to visit relatives or conduct business in the Caribbean were about to become noticeably cheaper, saving many families hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds. “Labour’s tax on flights is a crazy system that means people pay more tax going to Jamaica than Hawaii,” he told them. “Simply unfair to hard-working British families with ties overseas who wanted to visit friends and relatives.” The chancellor isn’t often the subject of kind words and toasts in West Indian barber shops and at church gatherings. But with a flourish, he inveigled thousands of new potential voters to think well of him and his party in time for May.

With the election just three months away, all parties are fighting hand-to-hand for votes, but the Tories have a very particular problem. In 2010, just 16% of the black and minority ethnic vote went to the Conservatives, 68% to Labour and 14% to the Lib Dems. The Conservatives have never anticipated a large minority vote. Never really needed it. It always seemed that mere consolidation of the party’s traditional heartland vote would be sufficient to send the so-called “natural party of government” back into power. But times have changed. The party’s support base is changing. Britain is changing. Some estimates predict ethnic minorities may comprise a fifth of the population by 2051. In what promises to be an era of tight elections, the Tories cannot afford to sit back and allow a minority vote to go untapped or, worse still, go elsewhere.

Related: Surge in migrant voters could swing vote in key UK constituencies

Much of the basis for the party’s new thinking stems from research prepared by the former Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft. “In the 20 of Labour’s 100 most vulnerable marginals that the Tories failed to win, the average non-white population was 15%,” reported the Tory peer. “In the five of those that were in London, it was 28%. The Conservative party’s problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats.” He said the party needed to address its problem with minorities as a pragmatic matter of self-interest.

That seems a no-brainer. The non-partisan campaign group Operation Black Vote has concluded that there will be 70% more seats where black and Asian voters could decide the outcome in May than there were in 2010. In 168 marginal seats, the potential ethnic vote surpasses the majority of the sitting MP. The dynamic could be affected in a variety of areas: Southampton, Oxford, Sherwood, Ipswich and Northampton.

David Cameron addresses residents in Peckham. David Cameron addresses residents in Peckham. Photograph: Fiona Hanson

But Ashcroft also cast the problem in moral terms. “It is just not right that in contemporary Britain a large part of the population should feel that a mainstream party of government – which aspires to represent every part of society and govern in the whole country’s interest – has nothing to say to them.”

Elements within the party took note. Especially as Labour’s long-standing grip on the minority vote also seems to be softening. But this is not an easy nut to crack – notwithstanding the chancellor’s easing of air passenger duty or David Cameron’s enhanced, deliberately visible enthusiasm for Diwali parties with photographers present – because for many minorities the Tory brand is a toxic one. Even those minorities who present on the doorstep as Conservatives – strong on family, supportive of business, sniffy about Europe, staunch in support of the Queen and country, resentful of “excessive” immigration – still balk at the notion of voting Tory. It’s not the party for people like me, they say. And some go further: isn’t the party a bit racist?

The poisoning of the Tory brand in the eyes of many minorities began some time ago. Memories linger. Time doesn’t always heal and contemporary offences compound the toxicity. “Every so often, someone in the party says something that really puts them off – most famously Enoch Powell,” says the former home office minister Damian Green. “We are going back almost 50 years now but I still hear that held against the Conservative party.” And there is Norman Tebbit and his infamous assertion that minorities in the UK must choose exclusive allegiance if they are to fully integrate. “Norman Tebbit’s cricket test set the Conservative party back, particularly among Asian communities,” Green says.

The result has been a twin-track approach. A key part of the strategy has been the formulation and promotion of policy that might persuade minorities to break with the past, ignore the branding issue and vote Tory. Conservative canvassers talked up the air passenger duty reform, and the decision of home secretary Theresa May to order a fresh review of the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation, which triggered fresh claims of Metropolitan police misconduct. Also her decision at last year’s party conference to devote sections of her speech to the iniquities of discriminatory police stop and search. “Nobody should ever be stopped and searched because of the colour of their skin,” she said.

Related: Tory election guru says Cameron should do more to win minority vote

The second limb of the strategy was representation. The Conservatives returned 11 ethnic minority MPs at the 2010 election. Activists hoped to do better. Shaun Bailey, a former adviser to David Cameron, formerly of the Cabinet Office and a well-known face in Central Office, was one of them. He spent the year trying to find a local Tory party willing to make him its candidate. “There are some distinct groups of people who will never vote Conservative, and the reason they don’t is because they can’t see themselves in what I call the ‘wedding photo’,” he said. “They don’t look into the party and see people who look and speak like they do – and seem to understand their lives.”

David Cameron with Shaun Bailey. David Cameron with Shaun Bailey. Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn

Bailey, 43, formerly a youth worker in west London, felt he could change the look of the Conservative wedding photo. Throughout the year he put out feelers and travelled to meetings hoping to win formal adoption. He had no doubt that many senior figures in the party would like to see him selected, for all that would symbolise. But he had a frustrating year – chasing possibilities, falling short, and in so doing highlighted a difficulty at the heart of the Tory quest to attract a minority vote.

After the grassroots revolt against the A-list initiative, the device through which Cameron sought to advance more female and minority candidates, the party has few levers with which to bring its dreams to fruition. Forty-one minority candidates have been able to win local Tory party endorsements, five in winnable seats, but Bailey has not been one of them. By conference 2014, he was wondering why a seat had proved elusive. “I’m right in the centre of beliefs. Church, married, small state. Might be that I’m young ... I’m black, I’m urban. For some people that might be a risk too far. If I’m known, they can see what I can offer. But again local associations have adopted the idea that it’s good to pick a local person.” Fine for them, he said, problematic for the Tory quest. “The problem is that we replicate, we don’t modernise. That’s how we lose our national appeal. What I would say to our associations is that we haven’t won an election in 22 years. And that is because we keep replicating who we are. We need new voices.”

Still, he kept the faith longer than Loanna Morrison, another Tory of West Indian origin, who fought Southwark in 2010 and hoped to be selected to fight in May. She too saw herself as ideal for the Tory project. “I can set an example, and I can say to people, listen, I’m a single mother from nowhere, not Oxbridge educated. I’ve described myself as ‘a Ghetto Tory’, and if I can do it, anybody can do it.” But after nine months of hope and searching, Morrison – a journalist and businesswoman – found the grind of finding the right seat in the right place overwhelming. The regime was pretty much sink or swim.

Were they the right kind of Tory? That’s a salient question, for some activists say it is easy for the party to pick minorities who fit a traditional Tory template – lawyers, City types, party wonks. Much harder to endorse candidates who look and sound different. Some say the party will never attract a sizable minority vote unless it tries harder to appeal to all of Britain’s communities, without targeting the most affluent and singling out favourites.

Lady Warsi. Lady Warsi. Photograph: Paul Cooper/Rex

Lady Warsi, the former party chairman – who resigned from the government last year over its stance on Gaza, gaining plaudits from many Muslim communities – fears her party may be falling into that very trap. “I think where we went wrong was that around 2012 we decided we were going to go for the black and minority ethnic vote but we were only really going to pitch for certain ethnic minorities,” she says. “While that would make campaigning sense, because you have to target those communities which are probably most likely to turn towards you – the softer end of the ethnic vote – I feel that in the long run that is going to do us a lot of damage. Because I think it’s genuinely created resentment within those communities who feel like they’re not really of interest to the Conservative party.”

She says she has been trying her best. Despite her own resignation, Warsi has continued to visit mosques and community centres trying to drum up Muslim support for the Tories. People understandably question how she can prosletyse for a party whose position caused her resignation. “I tell them that I resigned from the government and not the Conservative party.” Warsi says the party has had success with the British Indian community. “The British Indian Hindu community specifically. Polling shows that the Labour party has over time lost that vote and we have started to gain that vote. That is something that we have to celebrate.” And the party’s own headcount bears that out. Of the 41 new candidates selected for the May election, more than a quarter self-identify as Indian.

That’s progress, says Warsi. But the party could do better. “We need to pay much more attention to the kind of language that we use when we debate things like immigration and crime. I mean, some of the literature that was put out during the Rochester and Strood byelection ... made my skin crawl a little bit, and I thought it was regressive in the language that it was using. The language of fear. I believe my party can be better and must be better, certainly when it comes to its relationship with ethnic minorities.”

It’s still an uphill climb. Brands, and perceptions of them, are hard to change. But the trick has been done before. The Canadian Conservatives were seen by minorities there as having the same toxic brand. Three times as many minority votes went to their rivals in the Liberal party. But led by Jason Kenney, a rightwinger, now minister for multiculturalism and less formally known as the minister for “curry-in-a-hurry” – the party moved to defy gravity. There were apologies for, and reviews of, discriminatory policies affecting Poles, the Chinese and Croatians. Kenney toured the country talking to migrant groups and confronting “decades of negative branding”. “We are the only centre-right party in the world that wins a larger share of the vote from immigrants than native-born citizens,” he told the Financial Times last year. “I keep telling our caucus and the cabinet that immigrants are our new base.” Little wonder that Conservative counterparts in Britain – officials from Central Office – have sought his advice.

Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote believes the Tories could do worse than copy the Canadians. “They were brave in terms of embracing the communities that lived in the country. They said: you’re all Canadians. There’s a kaleidoscope of identities but fundamentally you belong; and in that belonging you’ll be afforded greater opportunities. If you embrace that, right on the doorstep, you’ll have a deluge of talent .”

But for now there is no deluge of talent or new support, just a sprinkling. There is no doubting the Tory direction of travel. The issue still is whether it can move fast enough for a minority vote to make a difference at the next election, and whether it can look even further into the future and – like the Canadians – attract sufficient minorities to strengthen its base.

And the jury is out on that. “In my experience the party has often proved unable or unwilling to sustain long-term projects. The urgent always ends up crowding out the important,” warned Lord Ashcroft, raising the issue of minority support in 2012.

George Osborne’s air-duty machination was a first step, and there have been others. But still the Tory quest for minority votes must travel quite a way.

Hugh Muir presents Erasing Enoch, The Tory Quest for the Minority Vote, 8pm, 9 February, Radio 4

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